When it comes to trapping, there are a few animals that quickly come to mind. One is wolves, which are iconic among wild animals, are sought after by trappers for their prized pelts and draw the support of those against the practice of trapping. Another is the beaver, the animal that brought men to the West, making legends of men like John Colter, Jim Bridger and others. I had been interested in trapping beaver for a while but there numbers were sparse within the Arctic. With shallow lakes, there wasn’t enough water to provide a habitat during the winter season. I was down in Fairbanks in November and my friend Ross had been out making sets. I asked to join him and we set out on skis in the Goldstream Valley. Our plan was to scout two ponds in hopes of finding a lodge and some activity. No lodge was present at the first, so we continued on, breaking trail through the dense alder and spruce forest.
Upon arriving at the second pond, we encountered solar panels, two odd looking research apparatuses atop the ice and a large amount of tiny orange flags. Out in the middle of the pond, hunched over an open hole, was Phil, who was studying the methane bubbles caught within the ice layer. Once more we scanned the shoreline for any signs of activity. We spotted a lodge along the shore not far from where we had entered. Now we were left to wonder, was the lodge occupied? Typically, there are a few signs that will indicate whether the lodge is being used or not. One of those is a feed pile. Before the entrance to the lodge, the beavers will amass a pile of wood that they will feed on throughout the winter season. Another indicator is thin ice. The activity from the beaver’s movement causes enough of a disturbance to prevent the ice from freezing as thickly as in other places.
Branches poked out of the ice a few yards out from the lodge’s edge. A good sign. In between, lay a semi open hole in the ice. It could be due to methane, but with the lodge and feed pile we attributed it to the beavers. Encouraged by the sign, we began chipping away at the ice in front of the lodge, in search of their run. As we broke through the ice, green vegetation and more wood floated to the surface, furthering bolstering our hypothesis that beavers occupied this lodge. With a wide hole cut, we began prodding with the ice chipper around the lodge in search of its entrance. There was a lot of standing and figuring, which led to us becoming cold. The temperature wasn’t that low, only -2 degrees F but we
The strategy for trapping beaver is no different than that of land based animals, but instead of in the snow or on dry land, the process occurs underwater. The idea is to funnel the beaver towards the trap as it makes its way from the lodge to the feed pile. After making our best guess as to where the lodge’s entrance lay, we attached two traps to two alder poles. The poles were stretched out and jammed into the mud on the pond’s floor, the upper half of the poles sticking out like goalposts. Traps in place, we began placing smaller branches and poles along the sides in hopes of blocking off any other means of travel besides that which went through the traps. A cluster of branches placed above finished the job. We donned our skis and raced back to the truck in hopes of becoming warm once more.
Three days later we set out in the evening to check our set. Our friend Mary came along this time and the three of us walked out to the pond under the bright light of a half moon. Shadows played out across the snow and stars shone through the thin layer of clouds overhead. Ross’ ermine friends had been active within the past few days and we saw even more sign along the trail. We made our way over to the set upon reaching the pond, as the research apparatus emitted a multitude of blinking lights out in the middle.
With the ice cleared, Ross and I each grabbed a pole and pulled the trap to the surface. The upper trap was sprung but held nothing. As the second trap cleared the surface of the water, so did the head of a beaver. We pulled the whole set out and laid the beaver atop the ice just beyond the edge of the hole. We worked quickly to remove the beaver from the trap, hoping to avoid the predicament of its fur freezing to the steel. Beaver removed, I picked it up and gave looked it over. It was much larger than I had imagined. I grabbed its front legs and took a look at its face, where I was greeted by its large orange stained teeth. After a round of pictures, the beaver was placed in the sled and we went on our way.
I was initially surprised that nobody else was trapping beaver in such a populated area. But our catch was the result of a few hours of work, for one animal. The fur doesn’t hold much monetary value and in an urban area most aren’t looking to eat beaver meat. Therefore, the beavers mostly live free. We, on the other hand, are interested in eating the meat and saving the pelts, perhaps to make a hat or mittens. We walked back under the moonlight, sled filled and spirits high. For now, the sets remain at home, but we plan to set snares in the near future. I’m still a novice at trapping, but am enjoying learning more about the animals and the different components that go into the practice.